BACK TO THE FUTURE FRIDAY: Portable Minidisc

Record anything

As long as it had an audio pulse, an MD recorder could record it. Lieven hooked up his AK240 to his Sony and recorded the analogue output of some of his favourite DSD tracks. Digital syncing was limited to 16 bit / 44,1 kHz, but analogue recordings have no such boundaries. If you have the proper connection hardware, you can record it on MD. And recording fidelity is very high.

Noise floor

Apart from a few sucky units from Kenwood, MD players boasted black backgrounds that until the release of the iBasso DX100 (nearly a decade after MD’s market influence had tanked) hadn’t been duplicated in the portable DAP world. You can plug the world’s most sensitive earphones into a run-of-the-mill MD player and hear nothing but your music. MP3 players have come a long way.

Today, the iBasso DX90 is as quiet as it gets. The AK240, while good, isn’t quite there. I marvel at just how well signal cuts through noise in pretty much any MD system.

Intimate sound

MD had a sound all its own. Was it the ATRAC codec? Was it the lower power amps? Was it the simple internal circuitry? Probably all of that and more. Some people swore that MD sounded better than CD. While that is impossible, differences did exist. For a variety of reasons, MD provided a unique sound, that in some ways, hearkens to old analogue sources.

MD units rarely sustained channel separation of greater than 50dB (about as bad as it gets). Distortion levels were high. Combine that with a high dynamic range and low noise floor and you get punchy, contrasty, yet intimate sound. It is sound that literally, we don’t have in the MP3 player world.

Use as inexpensive outboard DACs

Minidisc units record music onto optical media which is synced through either a digital or analogue connection. Today, external DAC/amp units are rather pricey. But many MD recorders can be had today (in Japan) for less than 50$. All you need is an optical cable and a lot of great quality 16-bit music.

I used my MD-DR7 as the DAC/amp for a RWA-modded AK120 for over a week. Why? Because I could. MD is cool like that.

 

Here’s what sucks about MD:

Intimate sound

I like channel bleed as much as the next two-eared fella. Our ears are meant to hear in joint stereo. Digital audio carves what our ears hear together into distinct channels. 16-bit audio can theoretically push 96dB of separation between channels. MD, however, does that intimate thing. If you get more than 44dB of channel separation from an unloaded portable player, you have found a performer. Plug in a pair of earphones and suddenly you literally won’t hear this side of a broken MP3 player.

Like that sound or not, the truth is that MD players really didnt’ perform up to 16-bit snuff.

NOTE: Earlier MD units had highly competent output hardware and performed better. This review tackles later, consumer MD units. Later devices were heavily commoditised in an age where commodity stained everything with a cheap patina. Most consumer MD units (among which, the MD-DR7 is one) had poor outputs. 

Weak output hardware

Most MD players and recorders have wimpy amps. Push volume up high and you get distortion. Lots of it. Some will distort even at moderately loud listening levels through stock earphones. Good units sported amps with 8mW per channel, which isn’t a lot. It is enough, however, to power sensitive earphones.

The other downside to that is that most internal amps really sucked. They had a hard time delivering resolution to any earphone at all. Of course, that was part and parcel of the MD experience. And if you were into MD, you were into MD. No one could dissuade you from believing what you listened to was superior. It certainly was a different listen. It just wasn’t better. Even today’s worst MP3 players will deliver higher quality signals into earphones than some of the most expensive MD players available.

The upside to the many downsides of MD playback quality is that you really were listening to your music afresh. By merit of comparatively poor output hardware, MD players and recorders sounded truly different. If all the stars aligned correctly, that sound could be fascinating, and addictive. There is a lot to be said for errors, misalignment, and lack of resolution, and the MD could write a book on that.

NOTE: Earlier MD units had highly competent output hardware and performed better. This review tackles later, consumer MD units. Later devices were heavily commoditised in an age where commodity stained everything with a cheap patina. Most consumer MD units (among which, the MD-DR7 is one) had poor outputs. 

Proprietary

Sony jealously guarded MD. If they updated their ATRAC codec, it had to be backwards compatible with older players and units from third parties. Often, they didn’t share updates with their partners in a timely manner.

As a result, whether minor or major, decode errors were de rigueur. Proprietary everything kept certain companies from entering the market.

Sony deliberately left optical outputs out of MD units to obviate copying. Every signal that came out of a portable MD unit had to be analogue.

Unreliable hardware

My first unit broke down. So did my third unit. That’s 2 for 5, and believe it or not, not such a bad ratio of hits to misses. MD recorders were notorious for breaking down. Early Sharp units were to be avoided like the plague. Pretty much everyone of them suffered eventually from TOC read errors. Even reliable hardware could randomly delete the music on a favourite MD. Later units cleared up many of those problems, but support from manufacturers was patchy.

Prior to 2001, it was hard to get together with other disgruntled/enthusiastic owners to discuss how to better enjoy/support your hardware.

Rounding up

Advice for buying one

If you’re thinking of picking up an MD unit, get ready to shop. Lots of dead or dying units are on the market. Compared to MP3 players, MD hardware is unreliable. Be sure you try the unit out. Don’t take the eBayers word for it.

Batteries still can be purchased, which is great news. I will probably pick up a new one. The battery in my MD-DR7 lasts for about 2 hours. That’s not bad considering it is now 12 years old.

Where do we go from here?

When I transitioned from MD to MP3 players, I was ready for a change. I was well aware of the many downsides to MD. But until very recently, finding an MP3 player that stirred the music-loving soul as well as MD did, has been difficult. I love the accessibility of the iPod and the radical style of iRiver’s AK series. But neither has the soul, or the stalwart work ethic of the MD.

But we have come a long way from the elegance and simplicity of the removable optical media world. My memories of MD are bittersweet. I miss it, yet I know that what I listen through today is higher fidelity even if it isn’t as enjoyable an experience. But I will always pine for the elegance and simplicity of the minidisc.

Next Page: Lieven’s thoughts/experience with MD

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Back before he became the main photographer for bunches of audio magazines and stuff, Nathan was fiddling with pretty cool audio gear all day long at TouchMyApps. He loves Depeche Mode, trance, colonial hip-hop, and raisins. Sometimes, he gets to listening. Sometimes, he gets to shooting. Usually he's got a smile on his face. Always, he's got a whisky in his prehensile grip.

44 Comments

  • Reply June 20, 2014

    Dave Ulrich

    I never did the MD thing, so this was an interesting history lesson for me. By the by, can you give a sneak peek on the DX90? I saw that it uses the same chip as the Concero HD and got excited.

    • Reply June 21, 2014

      ohm image

      MD was huge where I used to live: Sweden, and as big or bigger in Japan. When I went back to Canada, almost no one had it. Getting service (as you would need it eventually) was difficult, but staying the course was what I did.

      It was a matter of pride.

      • Reply June 21, 2014

        Dave Ulrich

        DX90?

        • Reply June 21, 2014

          ohm image

          Will be reviewing that in a few weeks. Till then, stay on topic 😉

          (It’s pretty good, btw.)

          It’s output is at least as good as the AK240 (http://ohm-image.net/opinion/audiophile/rmaa-summary-ak240-dx90-md-dr7-ipod-shuffle) but output quality isn’t everything.

          • Reply June 21, 2014

            Dave Ulrich

            I was thinking about going for that review. You beat me to it.

            I remember when MD was a thing here in the US… for a few months maybe. A few were heralding it as the replacement to CDs, but most people just weren’t having it. I remember some albums came out for it. I might have had a friend who had one.

            Staying the course for pride. Sounds like the people who refused to abandon laser-discs in favor of DVD.

            • Reply June 24, 2014

              ohm image

              Dave VS Nathan DX90 review, I can see it coming. I’m obliged.

              I lived in the USA when I first heard about MD. I was twelve or something. We moved to Canada when I was fifteen and I had forgotten all about it. Then I went back to Sweden for a bit and bought my first unit. I was a changed man- at least until I discovered that he iPod wasn’t as bad as all the MD people were saying it was.

              The next thing to change me is the Mezzo Hifi modification of the AK100. (Oh, and we’ll get that bad boy up, too.)

              • Reply June 24, 2014

                Dave Ulrich

                Naw that’s ok. At this point, I am stoked to read your review.

    • Reply July 23, 2018

      kris

      I had myriad of MP3 players from back in the days, i never looked at MD because as much as i like them they were to expensive for me to buy, but those desires to own one sticks with me.

      I always thought they as an older generation technology, would sound worse than the newer more technically advanced specification.

      But oh boy was i surprised, i had my first HiMD units its MZ RH910 and i used sonic stage to transfer my MP3s to that thing…

      pairing it with my old AKG 242HD, after just few minutes of head scratching in disbelief… enough to say that i put my brand new Sony NWA-45 along with my Cowon D2 back to the display box i have made for them… its not they sounded inferior or anything, but i just fell in love with the sound characteristic that MD unit delivers.

      and soon enough over the span of 1 year i own 7 units of player & recorder and 2 desktop units. i noticed each have their own color and character in sound… some i like more than the others.

      My friends calls em poison…

      • Reply July 23, 2018

        ohm image

        Thanks for the comment, Kris. One thing very few, to no MD players aimed for was linear or neutral sound character. Many had slow roll offs up top to keep tizzy out of the treble, and about 75-90% of portable MD players bump up bass by at least 2dB, as much as 4dB, probably to offset the sound of earphones, which were horrible back when MD debuted. For this reason, there is an incredible idiosyncratic stage to deal with and players with sounds ranging from smooth, to ones with almost no stereo separation at all. For people that don’t care about ultimate fidelity, I think MD has a LOT to offer. I’m in that camp as a listener, but as a reviewer, I have a lot of problems with my position.

  • Reply June 21, 2014

    George Lai

    Like Dave, I never did the MD thing, nor in fact the DAT thing. Somehow the recordable formats for me jumped from cassette to CD-R.

    • Reply June 21, 2014

      ohm image

      I started with DAT, did DCC, and ended up with MD. It was smaller, less prone to stretch errors, and the disks were indestructable. Totally worth it.

    • Reply June 21, 2014

      ohm image

      BTW, George, the MD-DR7 had a balanced headphone output. I need to add that to the review. It was the first mass-produced portable to do balanced. All Sharp ‘Auvi’ players came with re-badged, balanced Sennheiser MX300 earphones. Awesome.

      • Reply June 21, 2014

        George Lai

        That’s interesting to know. Mind you, I’m not sure my ears are even balanced 😉

  • Reply June 21, 2014

    spencer_chan

    Man I remember saving like crazy as kid to buy my mzr55.

    I went digging for it at my parents house and never did find it….

    • Reply June 21, 2014

      ohm image

      You had the MZR55? I had the MZR37, which looked like a 1970’s deck. They shared the same internal hardware.

      • Reply June 23, 2014

        spencer_chan

        Oh Jesus I found my mzr55!

        Now to find the power charger and the gumstick battery or the external pack….

        • Reply June 23, 2014

          ohm image

          Time to MD party. I had the MZ-R37, which internally was the same as the 55, but had noticeably worse sound in a few areas, though was a bit more dynamic in stereo separation.

  • Reply June 22, 2014

    Peter Janušič

    This was my first MD player which was also a recorder with digital output:

    https://c2.staticflickr.com/8/7059/7154371090_eafcb5e1bc_z.jpg

    Unfortunately my sister threw it aways about 10 years ago. So much for lending audio devices to women…

    I later got the slimmest MD player in the world, a Panasonic player, of which model name I can’t remember. It was just slightly bigger than the MD itself with optional external battery.

    Had some good nineties rap music on dozens of MDs and dance music as well.

    Still have this Original MD.

    • Reply June 23, 2014

      ohm image

      Shucks, that image is awesome. Did you take that?

      • Reply June 23, 2014

        Peter Janušič

        I found it on the web. I don’t think I had a digital camera back then. Mine was the same, cost a fortune.

        • Reply June 23, 2014

          ohm image

          Thanks. I don’t think this was taken with a digital camera. The lighting and processing screams 90’s LF.

  • Reply June 22, 2014

    Peter Janušič

    So hard to put images to this site, it boggles my mind on how to do it.
    There should be another image in this post which I cannot see….
    Edit: after edit its there now…

    • Reply June 22, 2014

      ohm image

      It’s been yonks since I’ve seen one of htese pre-recorded MDs. I had Simon & Garfunkel: Bridge Over Troubled Water.

  • Reply June 23, 2014

    Newob86

    There was so much promise in the MD system back in 90s and early 00s. It was small and packed with high sound quality (at that time). However, as the competition famed out from MP3, MD fell just in couple of years. I own about 4 MD players include the last Hi-MD model from Sony. As a MD lover I am, I could say MD brought me more excitement than any other portable audio players I have ever owned. I cannot agree more with all the disadvantages this platform has in your review. But back in that time, MD is just simply fun to me. I won’t forget that kind of enjoyment that I had the first time I listen to this level of sound from a gadget inside the pocket of my chino pans. Thanks you guys for bringing back all those good memories.

    • Reply June 24, 2014

      ohm image

      Not to mention that recording an MD in real time, titling it, and then listening got you closer to your music than ever. Today we download and may listen to our music. But back then, we knew our music inside and out, even which title letters were capitalised or not.

      • Reply June 24, 2014

        Newob86

        Agreed, it was a lot effort to keep all the tracks in all the MD disks to be correct. Hell lots of works to manage tracks back then. But as you indicated, this is how MD made us attached to those music.

        • Reply June 29, 2014

          ohm image

          I used to know every word of every song I listened to. It just took so long to do everything that I was so passionate about knowing my music.

  • Reply June 24, 2014

    heatofamatch

    I was heavily involved in MD (and minidisc.org etc) at the time. Now I look back and it’s all just a heavily romanticized dream. Even for nostalgia’s sake, cassette portables beat MD hands down.

    • Reply June 24, 2014

      ohm image

      So, we’re brothers. I wasn’t an active poster at minidisc.org, but I spend hours poring over new information, comparing battery life, hoping one unit (that I was about to purchase) sounded better than another. Back in those days, we didn’t have knowledgeable websites or reviewers to compare and give feedback, which is a shame.

  • Reply June 29, 2014

    Anthony O'Brien

    I have a Sony MZR35 and a JE440 deck hooked to my hifi. I like to occasionally play around with MD. I also still own a perfect Sony WM DC-2 cassette Walkman which I still use. Sad eh!

    • Reply June 29, 2014

      L.

      not sad, cool 😉

    • Reply June 29, 2014

      ohm image

      MZR35 was a great recording deck, bested in build quality only by the MZR50 (expensive now), but not in sound quality. Hold onto that bad boy.

  • Reply June 29, 2014

    SallyMaeSusan

    Great article.
    I never had a MD player but this was very enjoyable.
    The Sony Walkman (original) was my first portable and I loved it. Now, I have a Classic 160 and an iPhone and I love the musical performance of these devices – almost everything in ALAC and with Ety’s and Shures to listen with.
    I won’t, however, be jumping onto the ‘hi-res’ bandwagon; the all pervasive smell of snake-oil and my old ears won’t allow it. My God, we live in a wonderful technological age!

  • Reply August 17, 2014

    Back Row

    One very important thing people seem to forget about; when the battery went dead in your MD portable you could just change it and more often than not it was a common AA cell or two. Let’s see you try that with an MP3 player.
    I bought the first generation iPod Nano and returned it within 5 minutes.
    “Where’s the battery?” I asked only to be told that it didn’t have one. Not wanting to have an expensive paperweight after it would no longer hold a charge, I got my money back.

    • Reply August 17, 2014

      L.

      So very true

  • Reply August 20, 2014

    BaasTurbo

    I still have my MZ-R90! Oh, the memories! I even bought an MD car headunit when I turned 18 – it was perfect. I could carry dozens of cartridges in the car without the worry of scratching or warping them, nobody could steal my (back then €20 a pop) CD collection and it sounded way better than cassette.

    Thank you for making me feel old!

    • Reply August 26, 2014

      ohm image

      The MZ-R90! That was quite late in the MD game. Sony was killing it by then. I was a little ahead of you in years, but lacked a car. Still do.

  • Reply December 11, 2014

    DeepGroove

    Lieven, I am listening to my MZ-R70 right now with the Spiral Ears SE-5. Thought it does not have the accuracy and detail of my AK240, it sounds much more analog and sweet. I enjoy using it and miss sound like that.

  • Reply December 12, 2017

    roxics

    My only regret when it comes to MD, is that I didn’t stick with the format longer. I bought my first portable player/recorder in 1999 and since I was both a young adult and a truck driver at the time, it was a great way to take downloaded MP3s with me on the road and do some voice memos while driving.
    I loved it, but it was quickly overshadowed by CD-Rs and then iPods. So I missed out on those later 80 minutes designer discs which sell now for over $5 a pop on ebay. Plus all those smaller colorful players with USB connections and HI-MD ability.
    Wish I would have stocked up on this stuff when it was still readily available at local stores. But I didn’t get back into MD until the after the format was discontinued and the prices of everything went up.

    The unfortunate thing about MD is that it came too late. It didn’t hit its price/performance stride until the early 2000s when no one cared anymore. Had it been introduced in 1985 and hit its stride in 1995, I think it would have been a major hit here in the US. The format really should have been the mixtape of the 1990s. In an alternate reality where it had hit its stride mid 90s, I could imagine teenagers passing MDs around to friends and girlfriends and indie grunge bands doing garage recordings on them to sell at local shows. Car decks with them that didn’t skip like crazy like those early CD decks.
    But in our reality, in 1995, portable player/recorders were way too expensive for most high school kids or people in general. Nobody wanted to buy just a player because most people had already started collecting prerecorded music on CD at that point. Plus if I remember right, prerecorded MDs were a little more expensive than CDs and they didn’t sound as good. So if you were already collecting CDs, why bother? Unless you could do your own recordings, but again that was too expensive still.

    That missed opportunity for the format is really sad in my opinion.

  • Reply December 13, 2017

    paul packer

    Well said. Minidisc is the format that should have taken over the audio world but somehow just missed the boat. I still have 2 full sized decks and several dozen recorded discs, and I intend to keep the format going as long as I can. It’s hard to think of another format more worthy that hit such a brick wall of indifference, but as you suggest it was the manufacturer’s fault with both pricing and timing. However, since we seem to be going back to the future with vinyl, maybe there’s a chance for Minidisc yet.

  • Reply July 23, 2018

    kris

    I had myriad of MP3 players from back in the days, i never looked at MD because as much as i like them they were to expensive for me to buy, but those desires to own one sticks with me.

    I always thought they as an older generation technology, would sound worse than the newer more technically advanced specification.

    But oh boy was i surprised, i had my first HiMD units its MZ RH910 and i used sonic stage to transfer my MP3s to that thing…

    pairing it with my old AKG 242HD, after just few minutes of head scratching in disbelief… enough to say that i put my brand new Sony NWA-45 along with my Cowon D2 back to the display box i have made for them… its not they sounded inferior or anything, but i just fell in love with the sound characteristic that MD unit delivers.

    and soon enough over the span of 1 year i own 7 units of player & recorder and 2 desktop units. i noticed each have their own color and character in sound… some i like more than the others.

    My friends calls em poison…

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